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Friday 5: Future NASCAR stars could get their start online instead of on track

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Is a future Daytona 500 winner competing in a sim race today having yet to drive a real race car?

For as far-fetched as it might seem, it was only five years ago that William Byron — his skills honed online in iRacing events — started driving a Legends car.

Although many of his competitors began racing by the time they were 7 years old (Byron was 15), Byron already has an Xfinity championship and won rookie of the year in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series in each of the past three seasons.

Now the 20-year-old drives the iconic No. 24 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports. Some suggest Byron will win a Cup race this year as a rookie.

Byron’s rise leads to the question: Is he the exception or the start of a trend as simulation racing and eSports become more popular to a younger generation?

If Byron succeeds, the search will be on to find someone like him. While many children start racing in karting, Banderlos or quarter midgets, many can’t because their families do not have the means or expertise to compete.

Byron didn’t come from a racing family, so he raced on a computer instead of track as a child.

“iRacing was my chance to really see if I had any ability to drive a car,’’ Byron told NBC Sports. “I think from that standpoint it’s a great starter for understanding if you do have some ability and seeing if that can translate.’’

William Byron at Daytona International Speedway. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

While he admits not everything transferred from the computer to a car, the hours spent racing online helped.

“The biggest thing was learning the restarts and learning being side by side, setting up passes – the technical things that you figure out in a race car, I could figure out on the sim and put that in the race car,’’ Byron said. “Driving on the track by myself, that was natural. But the race craft from iRacing was something that I think helped me get farther ahead quicker.”

In the search for the next great driver, at what point does it make sense for teams or manufacturers to create an iRacing league for specific age groups to see who might have potential similar to Byron and put them in a car to see if their skills carry over?

“That is something that is of interest and something we’ve spent some time on,’’ Jack Irving, director of team and support services for Toyota Racing Development, told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely non-traditional. I think that is evolving, the better the physics are, the better that iRacing becomes and even the home units.

“By no means do we discount iRacing. I think it’s as important as any other form of working out or going to the gym. Obviously, racing is racing, so being put against a bunch of kids on the track, competing against each other, tells you a lot and the ups and downs of it are real. You can’t reset a race track. If you go hit a wall, you’ve got to deal with the feelings of that after.

“The psychological aspect of racing, that’s one thing I think from William’s perspective is he was extremely special from the way his makeup was and how he approaches races and how he approaches competing. If William had a tough race, it was the same William the day after, he was going to build on it and get better.’’

Toyota Racing Development already has created a driver pipeline that has sent Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez to Cup rides at Joe Gibbs Racing and watched as Byron — he drove in the Truck series for Kyle Busch Motorsports — moved to Chevrolet. Toyota has Christopher Bell in the Xfinity Series, Todd Gilliland and Myatt Snider in the Truck Series and Hallie Deegan in the K&N Pro Series West, among others.

For every Jones, Bell or Gilliland, others could be missed because they didn’t have the opportunity to begin racing at an early age.

Before Toyota can do something like that, Irving notes his group needs to understand what to measure and what translates from computers to the track.

“Can we expand it and do more with what we have? Yes,’’ Irving said of its analytics study. “Just getting data has been relatively new to the sport over the last few years. So even kind of dissecting data and how you would traditionally go after athletes at every level, we’re just starting to get over that more and more and we’re continuing to get better at that in the last few years.

“Figuring out the metrics that you’re just rating real racers has been difficult. We’ve spent a fair amount of time the last two years doing that, three years doing that, and evaluating the people that are out there that are currently racing. I think, yes, to touch further backgrounds and to find in deeper regions, (online simulation games) is definitely a tool that can be what the future is.’’

2. Daytona Speedweeks Crash Report

Ninety-five vehicles were involved in accidents in Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck races at Daytona, based on race reports and replays.

Chase Elliott (No. 9), Kasey Kahne (95) and Danica Patrick (7) crash in the Daytona 500. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

That is tied for the second-highest total of vehicles involved in incidents during Daytona Speedweeks since 2013. Those in incidents range from cars destroyed to any that were slightly involved.

The 28 Cup cars involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 was down from last year when 35 cars were listed in incidents. But this year’s total was the second-highest for the Daytona 500 since 2012.

The 63 cars involved in incidents in the Daytona 500 the past two years rank as the highest two-year total in the last 10 Daytona 500s.

Here is how many Cup cars were involved in accidents in the Daytona 500 in recent years:

2018: 28 cars

2017: 35

2016: 11

2015: 18

2014: 25

2013: 18

2012: 23

2011: 29

2010: 17

2009: 15

3. A Good Sign for Austin Dillon?

Only once since 2012 has the Daytona 500 winner not finished in the top 10 in points. That happened last year when Kurt Busch placed 14th.

The last time a Daytona 500 winner also won the championship was 2013 with Jimmie Johnson.

4. Xfinity Series Debuts

John Hunter Nemechek, 20 years old, and Chase Briscoe, 23, each will be making their Xfinity Series debut this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Nemechek will be in the No. 42 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing. Briscoe will drive the No. 60 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

5. The Last Word

While Austin Dillon and member’s of his team got tattoos to commemorate Dillon’s Daytona 500 victory last weekend, crew chief Justin Alexander did not do it.

“I said when I win a championship, I’ll get one on my face,’’ Alexander said Monday.

“Everybody document that,’’ Dillon said. “He’s going to get a tattoo on his face (after) a championship.’’

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Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

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Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

Kyle Larson left to ponder what might have been after mechanical failure

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Kyle Larson climbed from his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was parked on pit road far away from the top five finishers and from victory lane.

A ninth-place result left the top-finishing Chevy driver to wonder what if Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

A trackbar failure dramatically changed the car’s handling late in the race and a car that had run toward the front struggled to finish in the top 10.

“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by (winner Martin Truex Jr.) and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run … (and it was) really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Crew chief Chad Johnston said his options were limited when the trackbar failed.

“We know that the trackbar fell to the lowest position it could,” he said. “Why that happened, we’re still trying to figure out. Obviously when it fell, it tightens the car up and then we had to asses the situation if we could have fixed it. I don’t think we could have without losing a lap. So then we just adjusted the car around the trackbar being that low. At that point, we lost too much track position and way too late to overcome it.”

It was part of a challenging race for Larson, who relinquished his 18th starting spot and had to take the opening green flag from the rear of the field. He was penalized for missing driver introductions. Larson was running to the stage when he was called.

“A little miscommunication and was late to intros,” Larson said.

Even with that mishap, he was 18th by the 20th lap and was in the top 10 before the first stage ended. He finsihed eighth in the first stage and fifth in the second stage.

Larson was able to cut through the field at times by using an outside line most didn’t.

“I was surprised how quickly (Turns) 3 and 4 moved up,” Larson said. “I knew it would move up a little bit, and I didn’t know it would move up that far. So, I was happy about that. You could kind of roll a little more speed on exit. Was surprised that the track widened out.  (Turns) 1 and 2 I thought had potential to, but it kind of just stalled out and got too tight.  A lane off the bottom was just a little too tight. But yeah, it was a decent track.”